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"The Forbidden Experiment" Book Commentary

MEL's picture


The Forbidden Experiment Book Commentary

The Forbidden Experiment is an interesting and fascinating book written by Roger Shattuck. It delves into the tale of the Wild Boy of Aveyron, a feral child who lived in the French woods for five years. Through the examination of the Wild Boy’s life, Shattuck philosophically asks many questions that are interesting, relevant to our Neurobiology and Behavior course, and/or raise new issues in my mind. He questions, what makes humans different from animals? How can the unfortunate stories of feral children be extrapolated to human experience? What caused the Wild Boy’s atypical behavior? How did the Wild Boy see the world, or how did his senses differ from the senses of others?   How does one develop language?


“Before dawn on January 8, 1800, a remarkable creature came out of the woods near the village of Saint-Sernin in southern France… He was an animal in behavior, human in form, speechless, and naked except for tatters of a shirt” (5). This is how Shattuck begins his tale of the Wild Boy. The Wild Boy was captured and shortly thereafter was taken to an orphanage. He then spent about five months with a priest. Eventually, the Wild Boy was taken to Institute of Deaf-Mutes in Paris and was given to the care of Sicard a famous educator who had already had tremendous success with teaching deaf patients to use sign language. Sicard and Pinel, an extremely influential psychiatrist, were both members of a scientifically influential organization known as the Society of Observers of Man. They were assigned to the job of determining the Wild Boy’s mental state. In Pinel’s report given to the Society of Observers of Man he declared that the Wild Boy was an incurable idiot and, therefore, Pinel and Sicard did no further work with the Wild Boy. On the other hand, a young doctor named Jean Marc Gaspard Itard believed that the Wild Boy could be treated. He educated the Wild Boy over five years. Initially, Itard renamed the Wild Boy Victor and over the five years Itard taught Victor many things; he most importantly he refined Victor’s five senses, remarkably taught him writing signs which he used somewhat to communicate with people, and overall made him less wild. But Victor’s education was not a total success, he never learned to speak, his education was terminated after five years, and his education remained incomplete. Although Victor’s story is quite tragic, it gives us to opportunity to ponder many interesting questions.


What makes humans different from animals? I found this topic particularly interesting and thought provoking because of its complexity. In Itard’s reports about his work with Victor, he constantly discussed what makes humans different from animals and how Victor fit into this spectrum. Some of the differences between humans and animals that Itard cited are speech, justice, thought, societal influence, and morality. Itard reflected on the fact that Victor must have had some sort of intelligence to survive in the wild for six years, “but was he more than an animal? Could he reflect in any way on his own life? Could he form ideas and distinguish past from future? (39). Although Itard and Shattuck both conclude that after Victor’s education he is more than an animal; he is a human of an infant’s mental age, I still question this conclusion. Of course, Victor was biologically a homo sapien but in terms of the parameters that Itard set out; that is the human condition is defined by the ability to think and think, have a sense of justice and morality, and be influenced by society; then I think that, in this sense, Victor should not have been considered human. As Itard shows us through his report, at his peak level of achievement Victor was incapable of speech, was very egoistical, and still had no sense of shame or modesty. Although, Itard and Shattuck both consider Victor to be human do to the great progress that he had made, I think that this progress, while truly remarkable, shouldn’t be overvalued. Despite one’s opinion about this matter, the delineation between what makes humans and animals unique from one another brings up many interesting questions. Must one be able to speak or think to be human? Can one think without language? What makes a person “wild”? By living in a society with expectations, laws, and restrictions, are we artificially human while the “wild” people are truly human? 


 Relating somewhat to the above conversation, Shattuck also discusses one of the aspects of experience that differentiates humans from animals: our thought and mind. He does this by discussing the theories of philosophy present in the minds of the French people in the early 1800s. He specifically compares and contrasts the theories of Descartes and Locke. He explains, as we discussed in class, that Descartes believed that “the mind exists separate from the body and is not ruled by the body or the material world around us” (56). Locke, on the other hand, believed that the human mind is not separate from the body. He also believed in sensationalism, which is the idea that our understanding, as humans, receives its ideas, or inputs, from sensations and our reflections on those sensations. The influence of Locke’s theory of sensationalism was enormous, especially in France and England. According to Locke’s theory, a human is the product of his or her environment. So if the physical circumstances of life determine how a person lives, then by changing those circumstances one can reform a person’s life. I found this discussion of philosophical ideas relevant because they seem to have impacted Itard’s treatment of Victor greatly. Itard believed that by changing Victor’s environment he could fully make Victor into a full and normal human being. Itard also put much of his effort into developing Victor’s five senses; for he believed that, according to Locke, one’s ideas about and perceptions of the world come from sensory input. This leads me to question Itard’s reliance on Locke’s philosophical theory for developing his treatment method. Is Locke’s theory correct? Are humans simply the product of their environment? By using Locke’s theory to develop his treatment method, did Itard develop the most effective treatment method for Victor? 


This brought Shattuck and Itard to question, how did the Wild Boy see the world, or how did his senses differ from others? It turns out that “there was nothing wrong with his five senses but that their order of importance or sensitivity seemed to be modified” (13). Victor relied the most heavily on his sense of smell, then on taste, and his sense of taste came last. His sight was strong and sharp and his hearing seemed to shut out sounds that most other people would pay attention to. It also seems that Victor could not distinguish between simple shapes and colors. This reminds me of our class discussion about sensory input. As we determined in class, we all have experience sensory input differently and, therefore, have a different experience of the world. For example, we experience colors differently. The only reason that we feel that there is a consensus about color is because we agree on color labels. We are taught when we are young that when we see a certain color we call it “red”. Victor adapted to his life in the woods by fine-tuning his senses. He had no need to discriminate between most colors, so he paid them no attention. He was never taught the names for the colors that society deems significantly different from each other, so he never learned to discriminate between them. This makes me think about how much society, the influence of other people, and our environment plays a role in the development of our five senses.  


Another question that Itard and Shattuck pose is, how can the unfortunate stories of feral children be extrapolated to human experience? As Shattuck states, “it has always been possible to perform the forbidden experiment. One needs only to separate an infant very early from its mother and let it develop in nature, with no human contact, no education, no help” (43). Although an experiment using these methods would be very scientifically significant, it is often, and rightfully so, considered unethical. So in order to draw conclusions about the human condition, we must determine what caused the Wild Boy’s atypical behavior? Was he abandoned in the woods because he was already mentally deficient or was he mentally deficient as a result of being abandoned in the woods? It is almost impossible to tell, but it is very improbable that Victor was mentally retarded before he was abandoned because he was able to survive alone in the forest for six years. It is also hypothesized that perhaps Victor suffered from a serious mental or psychological problem before his abandonment. Although we can speculate on the facts, we will always be uncertain about Victor’s initial state, and therefore, there is no way to use his experience to speculate about the natural human existence and how a human may develop after isolation. This topic really intrigues me because I am very interested in the natural human existence and how we began to develop society and language over time. I think it is very unfortunate that we cannot use the stories of feral children or the forbidden experiment to explore these topics.


One of the skills that Itard stressed the most was speech. He spent a great amount of time trying to teach Victor to speak and use language. Although, Itard put a great amount of time and effort into developing Victor’s speech, the attempt was ultimately a failure. Victor never learned how to speak. He was unable to discriminate between sounds and imitate the sounds. This brings up the question, how does one develop language? As Shattuck discusses, Victor’s story supports the idea that there is a “critical period”. After the “critical age” in our genetic code for learning skills has been passed it is too late to learn these skills fully. This theory arises from the idea that the process of lateralization, in which different skills are assigned to the two hemispheres of the brain, occurs by age six. This theory purposes that after lateralization occurs, it is impossible to learn a first language. This theory explains very well how Itard was unable to teach Victor to speak and use language. This makes me wonder, how much this theory applies to acquiring a second language? Why does the “critical period” not seem to exist for other skills?


I have found The Forbidden Experiment to be a fascinating and informative book. There are many aspects of this book that I find very interesting because they have raised new questions in my mind and I think they will help others see things differently. Some of these aspects are the difference between humans and animals, how the unfortunate stories of feral children can be extrapolated to human experience, and how language develops. This book also discusses many things that we explored during the Neurobiology and Behavior course. It discusses the philosophical disagreement between Descartes and Locke/Dickinson (and sides with Locke) and it explores how people differ in their sensory perception and their experience of the world. In general, I have found this book very interesting and relevant to our class.



Shattuck, Roger. The Forbidden Experiment: the Story of the Wild Boy of Aveyron. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1980. Print.